While the business world is often viewed as a cold and impersonal place, Paul Hobby believes that successful companies operate with a degree of humanity.
“I think people crave communication, and it gets harder to accomplish as an organization grows bigger,” says the chairman and CEO of Alpheus Communications. “They just don’t want communication about what the stock price did today. They want humanity. They want vulnerability. When the boss makes a mistake and admits it to everybody, that’s very good for the company. It says, ‘Hey, this guy is not in denial. He’s willing to learn from his mistakes.”
The optical network provider now has 91 employees and posted 2006 revenue of $54 million, with an average annual growth rate of 26 percent.
Smart Business spoke with Hobby about the importance of being a humble leader.
Q: What are the traits of a good leader?
Vision and a willingness to provide affirmation and not just share credit, but deflect credit to the people around you. If people understand that the success or the failure of the organization is your ultimate report card, they know you are not out for yourself.
If the organization succeeds, I’ll get plenty of credit. I don’t need to go find it. And if it fails, that’s all my fault, as well. I think that stimulates the same behavior in others.
It’s stamina. I have never been part of a quality organization where the people at the top didn’t work hardest.
Consistency. Just like raising children, if kids know where their boundaries are every day, they are happy. If the boundaries are moving all the time, people don’t like that kind of uncertainty.
As you get more authority, you have to make more of a conscious choice to listen because people will defer to you, and you just can’t allow that. You have to make them talk. That’s where the information in the organization lives is in the field. If I start pontificating, they’re more than happy to be quiet and listen to me.
That doesn’t mean I’m right. It just means they are deferring to their superior.
Q: How do you communicate your vision?
Vision is passed along by communication. That can be by e-mail, it can be laminated elevator pitches, it can be T-shirts, or it can be notes in your lunch box. You have to make decisions, and you have to communicate.
You have to work real hard to boil it down to your essential elements, and you have to bounce it off people who will be honest with you. If it makes sense to you, but not to the average listener, you’re not through. You need to keep refining the message.
Q: What is a common mistake CEOs make?
You find people who mistake effort for progress. To move those people to a different place in the company or to move them out of the company is a painful thing. But you have to be outcome-oriented. You can’t be time-oriented.
Somebody stays until 7:30 every night, that’s nice, but it would be better if they got their job done and left at 5. Part of that is the hero culture.
Somewhere along the line, somebody told them that if you stay late at the office, you’ll impress the boss. Chances are the boss knows what your productivity is, your work habit notwithstanding.
Q: How can a CEO get employees to care?
People crave communication, and it gets harder to accomplish as an organization grows bigger. Hang around the water cooler. Tell sincere but self-deprecating stories. Be willing to put on the bunny suit at the Easter party if that’s what is called for.
I am more willing to be taunted in good spirit by members of the organization and have been many times. If you stand there at the coffee machine and talk about your son’s football game last night and what a heartbreak it was or what a fool you made of yourself, that’s wonderful. People want to work for that guy.
Be sure to share customer feedback. Be sure to articulate the big picture. We sell bandwidth, which isn’t very sexy until you realize soldiers are using that bandwidth to communicate with their kids from Iraq. It becomes a lot more significant at that point.
Q: How can a CEO show leadership?
We have a rule that anything that goes wrong is my fault. The purpose for that is to encourage people to take risks they wouldn’t have otherwise taken.
I own the mistake ultimately anyway. It’s my business. I hired these people. I gave them the authority to make the mistake, so if I just say at the outset, ‘Hey, I own the mistake, even if you made the decision,’ it’s real good.
People step out a little bit, they spend a lot less time with nonconstructive CYA [cover your ass] behavior.
HOW TO REACH: Alpheus Communications, (877) 257-4387 or www.alpheuscommunications.com